I love music. I always have. I especially like punk and Indiepop from the 80s. My obsession with The Smiths and Morrissey led me into worlds of art and literature I would otherwise never have entered. Punk taught me about politics and animal and human rights. I can honestly say I’ve benefited from my love of music and my life is good because of it.
If you don’t like music, you obviously have a worse life than me.
Or perhaps I’m being silly. If you happen to be indifferent to music, as many people are, how would you feel if I sincerely made statements like that?
Is it condescending of me to assume that I lead a better life than you because of my hobbies and interests?
How about I express pity at your music-empty life and tell you, with concern, that I hope you find a song that hooks you one day? Would you welcome my pity?
So why are statements like the one below accepted?
“If children develop a love of reading, they will have better lives.”
I recently had a small Twitter spat with a librarian who proudly quoted this as her ‘why’ (whatever that means). The source of this quote is a disgraced education pundit called Rafe Esquith.
I know many people who don’t read. I have two children who have not developed a love of reading. How dare anyone comment on the quality of their lives? In response to the quote, I wrote:
“My literate but non-literary daughter would beg to differ. She lives a rich and full life but does not enjoy reading.”
The librarian misunderstood my statement and continued to press the preposterous point by saying:
“Does she ‘read with her ears’ audiobooks? Does she enjoy being read to? Maybe she will fall in love with reading later.”
The fact is, she has a developmental language disorder, known as dyslexia. Reading is laborious, time-consuming, unpleasant and effortful for her. She can do it. She’s a fluent reader with excellent comprehension, but it takes gargantuan effort.
“Nope. She likes sport, films, music. Of course she’ll listen when I read books aloud, but my point is, why should she HAVE to love reading?”
At this juncture, another librarian chimed in (I had no idea they hunted in packs):
“She doesn’t. I think you’re misunderstanding the quote. Studies show readers vote at higher rates, volunteer more, more involved civically.”
Yes, I’m sure those who can read are more likely to vote etc. This has nothing to do with loving reading. So I asked for some sources:
“Could you point me to the studies which show actual causation between a love of reading and those attributes? Again, my daughter would deny.”
I’m still waiting for those studies. In the meantime, the second librarian had more to say:
“The quote doesn’t mean the inverse is true. I hope she finds her ‘hook book’ someday.”
“She feels patronised and condescended to by such a hope. As do I.”
I may have hit a nerve, as the next response attests to:
“I don’t understand your negativity. I can also say: children who develop a love of exercise will have better lives. Would you object? Peace.”
Yes I bleeding-well would object actually. I hate exercise. So does my youngest (the bookworm). We like dancing and tennis and swimming in the sea. These activities give us exercise, but we don’t do them for their exercise value. I have to force myself to go to the gym because I know it’s good for me, but there isn’t a personal trainer in this universe who would be able to make me love exercise.
You know that feeling you have when you’re doing something and you think, “This. This is the purpose of my life. This is what I was born for.” That’s the feeling I don’t get when I do housework. I hate housework. It puts me in a very very bad mood. My two younger children know not to ask me for favours if there’s a laundry basket or a broom in my hand. As infants they had extensive vocabularies but when I once showed them an iron, neither of them had a word for it.
So, I can do exercise and housework, but there are six million other things in the world I’d rather be doing. Would you really call your life better than mine because my house is messy and I can’t touch my toes? I would call vapid smugness if you dared. So I said:
“Actually, the negativity stems from false pity of those who don’t share your love of reading.”
The original librarian decided she wanted the last word by saying all she was trying to do was share her passion for inspiring children to love books.
This is a noble passion. I love books too. I work with children to help them become readers and writers and if they become readers for pleasure, I’m very happy for them. But I wouldn’t dream of sharing my passion for books through condescension. This would be very uninspiring indeed.
I’m perfectly happy with my daughter’s stance on reading for pleasure. She is literate. She gets good marks in all her subjects at school. She chats away on social media, shops online and does all the other things a literate person does. She just doesn’t like books. She, like many people in this world, simply prefers other things to reading.
I did a quick Facebook survey of my friends and received many interesting replies. The survey said:
How many of you are prepared to come out of the closet as non-bookworms? How do you view statements like: “Children who develop a love of reading have better lives.”
Here is a list of other people from that survey who don’t like reading:
Illustrator – “I get bored easily when I read, I lose focus and can’t follow the story.”
Chemical engineer (a very successful, senior chemical engineer)- “I never read as a child or even a teen and I think I’m doing okay.”
Mum of a very bright pair of twins – “One of my daughters doesn’t like to read, I have one book worm twin and one non book worm twin. It won’t stop her from doing well, she just prefers to learn from doing not from reading.”
Photographer and disability care worker – “I no longer read fiction. After growing up in a family of bookworms and being one myself until my mid 30s, I often found myself reading until the wee hours of the morning, even when I had to get up for work early.I finally made the decision that I simply don’t have enough time to spend hours of each day in other people’s fantasies.
I read fiction to my children for half an hour most evenings but my personal reading is focused entirely on text books and factual information.”
When I asked him if his early immersion in fiction gave him a better life he replied that it didn’t, though it did help him escape some horrible reality for a while. We all have means of escape: films, hobbies, friends. It doesn’t have to be books.
Another photographer (with, might I say, one of the most enviable lifestyles I know) – “I’m such a non-reader!! I plan on staying that way, so happily. Yep that comment is as stupid as my opinion that children who horse ride live happier lives….oh hang on…no that one is true!”
Mum of very bright ex-student of mine – “He reads to learn about the things he’s interested in, he can follow diagrams and instructions that baffle me. He has an organised, sequential approach to putting complex machines together.”
Mum of an accountancy student – “She rarely reads, doesn’t enjoy it and finds it a real struggle. She only got diagnosed as dyslexic last year though, which kind of explains it. She has an awesome life, she’s studying accountancy and loves maths! She is also a brilliant artist and rides her mountainbike really fast! People who ride bikes have better lives than those who don’t! FACT!”
Translator at the European Commission – “For the record, I’m still far from being an avid reader as an adult. There are other things vying for my attention and by the time I do pick up a book in the late evening I rarely get through more than a page before I fall asleep. This doesn’t make my life any better or worse than anyone else’s.”
Graphic designer – “Non reader and my life is frickin’ awesome! I was married to an author for nearly 10 years, so books were a huge part of our lives. I read a lot for a while there, probably because I thought I should. I loved those books, but it never made me thirsty for more… one crappy chapter and I was gone…”
Disability support worker (yep, I know a few) – “I hate reading. Give me pictures any day.”
I know many more people who don’t love reading, including a screenwriter, a hedge-fund manager and several successful business people. I’m sure we all do.
One comment did pluck at my heartstrings though, from the mother of a little boy:
“I guess it makes me feel slightly anxious as he doesn’t enjoy reading at all and me and his dad absolutely love it. It was the background to both our childhoods.”
It’s that sort of fear and anxiety that makes me cross with the ‘better lives’ statement. Make no mistake, being literate is an essential part of being able to function in a complex society. But a love of reading is a personal thing, not a quality of life deal-breaker. Parents all over the globe fret about their children reading for pleasure because of this fallacy. For goodness sake, relax. Literacy and love of literature are two completely different things. The former is essential and the latter is personal.
I do think, though, that you should give Hatful of Hollow (second down on the left of my picture) at least three listens, and if that doesn’t change your life for the better, then you might very well be dead inside.